The Price of Trash August 25, 2010
I was reading an article in an old issue of Readers Digest (July 1995) called “The Recycling Myth.” The article asserted that the shortage of landfill space is a myth, and that recycling is more expensive than dumping. Both the cost and the space need are improved by newer methods of landfill management, specifically piling higher and covering layers with dirt, rather than burying shallow landfills. While I have no reason to doubt either assertion, I think that it neglects addressing some of the more important reasons for recycling.
Money and landfill space are certainly considerations, but in some ways these issues may be mere distractions from more important considerations. The cost to the earth and the cost to human life must be considered beyond the value of financial resource, because they are more important. The ecological questions must be addressed in far greater depth than the amount of land used, and the safety and health issues must me addressed in a meaningful way.
The land used argument sounds valid until you consider that even if less “land space” is used, it is the same amount of garbage being put into the earth. And no matter how careful authorities are, some toxins will find their way into the dump. The less space a dump takes, the better. Two cubic yards are the same volume whether they are stacked or laid side by side. And while they may not have the same effect financially, in terms of land cost, they have identical effect in the amount of earth harmed. Therefore, minimizing the amount of waste buried in landfills is important. It’s a red herring to bring in the amount of land purchased and used. That is not a measure of volume of earth tainted, it is only a financial gauge.
More important, though, is the impact of mining. This point has rarely been addressed in the question of recycling, and I believe it should be. Mining hurts, and kills, people, and the more metals we throw into landfills, the more we later need to have mined. Even as I type this Chilean miners in a recent disaster are awaiting rescue. A few months ago, 29 miners were killed in a collapse in West Virginia. Almost every year stories hit the news about accidents killing and endangering miners. Recycling is a far safer job than mining. I would far rather create recycling jobs than mining jobs, even if it is more expensive.
Ecologically, too, mining pays a dear and irreversible cost. The more we use the resources that are easily available and dispose of them, the more need to be mined. And the more we deplete those resources, the more “innovative” the mining techniques need to become. By innovative, I mean that mining companies need to resort to ever more ecologically invasive methods. They harm the earth, and they often kill communities economically and destroy the lands on which people live. Often the victims are among the poorest people on earth, and then what little they have is destroyed when they no longer have drinking water or a clean place for their children to play. When we say that it costs less to dump than to recycle, we need to ask the question: costs whom less?
I realize I’m responding to a 15 year old article; yet my own community only just adopted a widespread recycling program this summer. It really is taking us this long to take action, and every month we wait is another month that raw goods need to be mined instead of recycled. This isn’t just about money, and it isn’t just about politics. It is about those who suffer as a result of the inconvenience of separating cans from garbage.
What I ask of you as you read this is one thing: do not look to the hypocrites who yell “save the earth” while running up $1000 a month electric bills. Do not look at the earth as belonging to one political party. Do not view recycling as something extremists are trying to push down your throat. Instead, just take a moment to think about those who have seen their communities destroyed, or their fathers lost, to mining. If you reject all other environmental efforts because the messengers sometimes offend, please do not reject recycling your cans.